FAQs

When was IIU’s created?

What is currently known as the Informatics Innovation Unit (IIU) was originally formed in 2007 as a small resource to meet the need for on-going information technology-related research and development activities.  It had no formal name at that time, but was referred to as the “R&D Lab.”

Due to various policy, technology, and security constraints, the R&D lab computing infrastructure, within IIU, was created as an entity separate from the CDC network. In 2010, the R&D lab was incorporated into the CDC Informatics Research & Development Unit (IRDU) within the Public Health Informatics and Technology Program Office in the Office of Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services. In 2013, IRDU became the Informatics Innovation Unit (IIU) within the Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services (CSELS).

What services does IIU provide?

IIU provides a wide variety of unique technology innovation services.   You can learn more on our services page.

What types of projects cannot be run in IIU?

As an R&D lab, at no time are projects to use live data that contains information about health status, provision of health care, or payment for health care that can be linked to a specific individual. In addition, lab projects are not to create production systems, nor connect to production systems. The focus needs to be on a proof of concept or prototype. Please review our code of conduct.

What is a prototype?

We consider a prototype a software project that demonstrates a concept, tests an approach, or experiments with a new technology. Typically, IIU will work with one or more public health programs to develop prototype software that addresses a specific public health problem.

What is a Structured Evaluation?

Formal testing and evaluation of technologies that have a potential impact on public health practice. These evaluations use a framework and template developed by IIU staff to develop a consistent quantitative and qualitative review of a specific technology, and examining its value to public health.

How do I request services from IIU?

All requests can be made through our service desk.

How do I report a problem? / I have a question about my engagement?

Please send a request through our service desk.  If you cannot, please email informaticslab@cdc.gov describing your problem or question. Please make sure to include a description of the problem, steps to recreate, what you were doing when the problem occurred, your engagement number and the name of your virtual machine.

I emailed you yesterday and haven‘t received a response. What is the Lab’s service level agreement?

The Lab is a resource provided by CSELS to the CDC and the public health informatics community. We are a small group and cannot guarantee a service level agreement. We try to answer all contact within a day, but this can be impacted by many other factors like annual and sick leave or other projects. The Lab runs on a single engineer – thus, depending on his workload, your response may take longer. Because of our limited resources, the Lab may be offline for scheduled maintenance. If you have a critically important event or demo, please let us know ahead of time (at least one week’s notice) and we’ll add it to the informaticslab@cdc.gov calendar and try to plan around it. The Lab does not offer telephone support.

How does the Lab share information?

The Lab maintains an external web site not hosted by CDC.gov: https://www.phiresearchlab.org (which you are currently on). This site serves as a collaboration locus for the Lab’s interaction with the public health informatics research community. We share news items, brief reviews, project prototypes, lessons learned, structured evaluations and any other material that can be helpful to the public health informatics community. This site is maintained by IIU and content is created by Lab personnel or by guest authors from within the informatics community.  This web site was set up according to CDC web, communication, IT, and security policies and was established via a waiver signed by the HHS Secretary, HHS CIO, and CDC CIO. We maintain a non-cdc.gov web site due to the collaborative nature of the site and because content is created by community members. Please refer to the site’s Disclaimer and Code of Conduct for more information.

How can I use the Lab’s physical space?

The Lab maintains a dedicated, physical room in 2500 Century Center that is available for programs to use to collaborate in real-time for a variety of purposes. If you have a single event, please submit a service desk request describing how you would like to use the Lab. The Lab has 18 dedicated workstations available to use: four Windows workstations, four Mac OS X workstations, 10 thin-client workstations, and a large touchscreen display. The Lab comfortably seats 18 participants. The Lab has printing services and limited teleconferencing.

This space is useful for whatever your program may need. In the past it’s been used by programs for:

      • Software development – Apple does not allow the virtualization of the Mac OS X operating system. The Lab Mac workstations can be used to develop software that requires a Macintosh computer. Currently iPad/iPhone/iOS apps must be developed using tools that only run on Mac OS X. In order to use 1-4 of the Lab’s Macs, please set up an engagement and schedule time with others who may be using the Macs.
      • Demonstrations – showing off a web site or software tool.
      • Training – teaching small groups how to use a web site or software tool.
      • Collaboration – teams can meet to discuss and plan out an idea.
      • Usability Testing – focus groups can gather requirements or test how users access and use a web site or software tool.
        • Social Media Communication – a program uses the Lab to conduct Twitter / Facebook / etc campaigns to be able to easily compose, review and respond to interactions.

How can I use the Lab’s virtual computers and virtual machines (VM)?

The Lab provides private cloud functions through the Applied Public Health Informatics Research Cloud using VMWare’s virtualization software. This lets you request, use, and access computer resources that we host, but you can access from your CDC workstation or any other computer that has Internet connectivity. The Lab currently supports Windows (Server2k3, Server2k8, XP, 7, etc.) and Linux (CentOS, Ubuntu) operating systems, but we may be able to support other operating systems if you ask us. The Lab provides you with a standard install and administrator access so you can configure it to suite your engagement. The Lab has some limited software licenses for testing, so typically you will need to either purchase or provide a license in order to install it within the Lab. You can specify custom network configurations and test out your concept with as many VMs as you need, within reason.

Lab VMs are provided for free, but are available on a first come, first served basis depending on the current demand for resources. VMs are set up for 3-6 months and can be renewed if necessary.

Lab VM use generally falls into two categories:

    • Custom Desktops and Servers – you get a set of servers that you configure and use for purposes of your engagement. These custom VMs can be configured as necessary for your engagement.
    • Standard desktop – you gain access to a pre-existing Windows desktop that you can use for limited software testing and external web site access. This desktop is limited and not customizable, but it is much quicker to set up.

What development tools does the Lab provide?

Over the course of working with programs, we’ve identified and provide a few services that are useful for software development:

• Issue Tracking through Jira – hosted within the Lab
• Wiki collaboration through Confluence – hosted within the Lab
• Source code management through Github – hosted externally, but cleared for use within CDC

These tools are available for public health programs to help them develop informatics prototypes and test out software development. We have worked with the appropriate groups within CDC to clear these tools for use within the CDC environment. Some are hosted directly within the Lab and maintained by Lab personnel (Jira, Confluence) while some others are hosted by external partners (Github) and available for use as a third-party web application under HHS’s rules and policies. Programs and groups are free to use other tools as appropriate for their needs, but the Lab provides these to reduce the resources that programs needs to exert on security, policy, IT review and support. There are many tools available for software development and these are not intended as a recommendation of what to use, but an example of what is available for use. As CDC and public health informatics infrastructure matures, it is expected that these development tools will graduate out of the Lab into a permanent, production location.

Issue tracking is provided through Jira. Upon request, the Lab can create a new Jira project and grant the users admin rights over the project to configure workflow, permissions, issue type, issue fields that is needed for their specific project. The default is for projects to be open to the public, but access can be restricted based on engagement need.

Wiki software is provided through Confluence. The Lab can create a new Confluence space and grant the users admin rights over the space to configure permissions, page layout, page structure and content. The default is for pages to be open to the public, but access can be restricted based on engagement need. Some programs have had private pages that require log-in to view, but many allow the public to read, but specific logins to edit. The Lab uses Confluence for its own wiki and requires login permissions to edit a page. For user management, engagements manage user accounts through a manual process. We hope to improve this in the future. All content on the wiki must be non-sensitive and engagements must moderate content and remove anything that is inappropriate.

(Note: thanks to Atlassian for granting us free use of their products under their open source project support program.

Source code is provided at Github. The Lab uses Git through the Github.com product to share software projects using an open source license. Engagements can add their repository as a separate project under the InformaticsLab organization. All projects must be released under a compatible license (Apache, GPL, BSD, etc.) and cannot contain sensitive data. The Lab has worked with policy groups within CDC to write a brief review on open source that clear and confirm how open source can be used on government created and government-sponsored projects. The Lab releases all of its prototypes under the Apache Software License 2.0, but programs must select their own license (open source or non-open source) as appropriate based on their specific needs.

Can the Lab help me with mobile development?

The Lab offers two services to help with mobile app development:

    • App Lab – hosting of beta versions of mobile apps (iPhone, iPad, Android) to facilitate testing with CDC and CDC partners. This site hosts the app files and allows them to be directly downloaded and installed onto mobile devices. This saves the time and effort required with manually copying apps onto specific devices based on device id.
    • Novel Devices Acquisition – the Lab can help CDC programs acquire and use novel devices for experimentation and testing. Before devices are officially approved by CDC, they can be acquired and managed by the Lab to allow programs to test processes, apps and techniques. Each device requires an engagement with the Lab and will abide by the Lab rules of behavior and code of conduct. Once the device is supported by CDC, the Lab helps to transition support using the appropriate, approved channels.

How does the Lab support external testing websites?

Since the Lab hosts its own enclaved, external network we can assist programs with setting up temporary websites that can be used for user outreach, usability testing, customer feedback and more. Each website is set up as a separate engagement with its own dedicated virtual machine running the web server of the engagement’s choice (most run IIS or Apache, but we have engagements running Tomcat, node.js, JBoss and many more web servers). Then a specific subdomain is created under https://www.phiresearchlab.org that will route traffic to the engagement’s virtual server where it is handled according to the server configuration. For example, http://sample-engagement.phiresearchlab.org could be set up to support the testing of web service APIs or a new version of a web tool that requires access from external partners.

Each website is managed by engagement staff according to the controls set up within their engagement form. To establish a lab testing site, please contact us through our service desk let us know the name of your virtual machine, the name of your subdomain and what port you would like to use.

The Lab does not currently support SSL/TLS testing sites, but we expect to in the near future.

Can the Lab build my prototype?

The Lab has a limited team of developers and designers who may be able to work with you to create a prototype. While we create 1-2 prototypes each year, we work with many programs to help them prototype using their own teams. Please submit a service desk ticket to request this service.

Our developers and designers can work with your team to help you explore concepts and ideas through several levels of prototype maturity:

      • Visual Mockups – these non-functional prototypes are build in either low fidelity wireframes or high fidelity graphics and help programs explore the needed and desired functionality. These mockups help groups brainstorm about what is possible and what fits their user needs. Our user experience (UX) designer can help create mockups.
      • Functional Prototypes – these prototypes are partially developed in the app platform (mobile, web, server, etc.) with partial implementation to demonstrate how a tool will function. These prototypes help groups test functional concepts with small groups of beta testers. The source code built for these prototypes is frequently reused in later production releases. The Lab has had a few prototypes graduate out of prototype into a full-fledged tool in production use.

Please reach out to us through our service desk or email informaticslab@cdc.gov if you need help prototyping a concept and you can meet with the Lab team to determine how best to proceed.

What is Public Health Informatics?

Public Health Informatics has been defined as the systematic application of information and computer science and technology to public health practice, research, and learning. It is one of the subdomains of Health informatics

Citation:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_health_informatics

Public Health Informatics is the application of informatics in areas of public health, including surveillance, prevention, preparedness, and health promotion. Public health informatics and the related population informatics, work on information and technology issues from the perspective of groups of individuals.

Citation:  https://www.amia.org/applications-informatics/public-health-informatics

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | Department of Health and Human Services